A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes

Danny E. Olinger

Ordained Servant: January 2009


Also in this issue

Too Frank by Half: What Love Should Have Covered

When to Forgive Others

Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life

A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes, ed. David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008, 506 pages, $35.99.

A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes aims to be a conversation among informed friends concerning the theology of John Calvin's Institutes. Calvin's two-fold stated purpose in all editions after 1539 was to provide a sum of Christian doctrine and to offer a point of entry into the study of the Old and New Testaments. A common thread that runs through A Theological Guide is this understanding that the theology of the Institutes is based upon the Scriptures as the Word of God. More than one writer explains that the Institutes contain the doctrinal elaborations drawn from the exegetical work that Calvin undertook in his commentaries.

In treating Calvin's doctrine of Scripture, Robert Reymond points out that, contra Rome's view that the church is the final authority in faith and life, Calvin believed that the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture is the final authority in faith and life.

However, Reymond disagrees with Calvin's teaching that for God "the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us" (57). Reymond states, "I would counsel that we should not follow Calvin here since we can know on the basis of God's verbal self-revelation many things about him in the same sense that he knows them" (57).

Reymond's disagreement recalls elements of the so-called "Clark-Van Til Controversy" concerning the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God, with Reymond following Gordon Clark's teaching. Clark believed truth must have a univocal, identical point of coincidence in God and man's knowledge. Van Til, like Calvin, would not force one to choose between univocal and equivocal knowledge. The knowledge of God is beyond the creature's full understanding, but that is not to say that the creature does not have a true understanding. Calvin with his statement holds to a biblical (and Reformed) view of analogy and correspondence, which allows him to maintain the distinction between the Creator and the creature in the realm of epistemology.

R. Scott Clark argues that Calvin always grounded the cause of election in God, and not in the creature. To do otherwise would be to attack the divine free will because it would condition it by something outside God. Regarding predestination, Clark maintains that Calvin always taught a doctrine of double predestination. According to Calvin, those who object to the doctrine of reprobation are marked by a refusal to be curbed by the Word of God.

Michael Horton rightly observes that Calvin's anthropology does not include the Roman Catholic teaching of the donum superadditum, that is, a gift of grace added to man's nature in order to orient him to God. Moral corruption due to disobedience to God, and not a deficiency in man's creation, stands at the center of the doctrine of sin. From its wrong starting point, Roman Catholicism must see man as deficient from creation, sin as not totally damaging man, and salvation as a synergistic effort between God and man.

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. convincingly argues that Calvin taught that justification based solely on the forensically imputed righteousness of Christ and received by faith alone stands or falls with the believer's underlying union with Christ. Calvin taught that the two-fold benefit of union with Christ is justification and sanctification. Justification and sanctification are inseparable, and only those already justified are sanctified. However, justification is not to be seen as the source of sanctification. The source of both justification and sanctification is Christ by his Spirit.

According to Gaffin, this allowed Calvin to stand against Rome's making justification (change of status) dependent upon righteousness resident in the believer. Joined in union with Christ, the believer's righteousness in justification is outside himself. Gaffin writes concerning Calvin's view, "Imputation is a judicial transfer that preserves the purely forensic nature of justification and at the same time ensures that the righteousness reckoned in justification is resident solely in Christ, in his person, and not somehow within the person of the sinner united to him" (264).

Calvin also refuted Rome's claim that the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone produces indifference in the believer to holy living and good works. Calvin argued that the faith through which the believer obtains the free righteousness of the mercy of God does not lack good works. Faith as justifying and faith as sanctifying are not different faiths. Union with Christ is both forensic and renovative. Calvin wrote, "Christ, our righteousness, is the sun; justification, its light; sanctification, its heat. The sun is at once the sole source of both such that its light and heat are inseparable. At the same time, only light illumines and only heat warms, not the reverse. Both are always present, without the one becoming the other" (268).

In regard to the government of the church, Joseph Hall writes that Calvin believed that "two genres of offices exist by Christ's mandate: the office of elder (presbyter) of whom there were three kinds, teachers (doctors), pastors, and governing elders, and the office of deacon" (396). This leads Hall to conclude that, although Charles Hodge and Calvin both taught that pastor and elder have equal authority in church courts, Hodge differed with Calvin "in terms of the disparity between the ordained pastor and the layman, the non-theologically trained, governmental elder" (407). It appears with this statement and others that Hall would have Calvin viewed as sympathetic to the so-called "two-office" position.

For this reviewer, when Calvin argued that bishops (pastors) and presbyters (pastors/elders) were synonymous, he was arguing over against Rome for the parity of pastors. That is, no single pastor should be called a "bishop" with authority over other pastors. That is Calvin's basic point, not eliminating the disparity—or order in the offices—between ordained pastors and lay governmental elders.

Space prohibits talking about the fine contributions of K. Scott Oliphint (Knowledge), Joseph Pipa, Jr. (Creation and Providence), Peter Lillback (The Covenant), Joel Beeke (Appropriating Salvation), David Calhoun (Prayer), W. Robert Godfrey (Worship and the Sacraments), and Cornelis Venema (Last Things).

The secondary star of this book by Calvin commentators is seemingly the one Calvin scholar who did not have a chapter, Richard Muller. Whenever a particular reading of Calvin needed support, Muller was quoted as the authoritative guide, particularly his The Unaccomodated Calvin.

Muller's absence, however, does not take away from the value of the book. The chapters are uniformly solid, and an appreciation and love for Calvin shines. Hopefully, those who pick up the book will heed the counsel of the commentators and turn to reading Calvin's Institutes. But, Calvin himself would not have the reader stop there. For him, the goal of the Institutes is encouraging and enabling one to study the Word of God for the building up of the church to the end of glorifying God.

Danny E. Olinger
Glenside, Penn.

The author is General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education (OPC). Ordained Servant, January 2009.

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Ordained Servant: January 2009


Also in this issue

Too Frank by Half: What Love Should Have Covered

When to Forgive Others

Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life


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